Monday, March 8, 2010

Six Impossible Things I Can Believe About 'Alice in Wonderland'

Tim Burton has said he never felt an emotional connection to any of the previous movie or television incarnations of 'Alice in Wonderland' and always thought it was a series of some girl wondering around from one crazy character to another. Well, as someone who's read both "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and the sequel "Through the Looking-Glass (and what Alice found there)", I can tell you that is exactly how Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) originally intended the Alice stories to be. There was no narrative, no framework in his mind as he invented these stories for Alice Liddell and her sisters; it was merely a series of adventurous meetings. "Looking-Glass" followed a more logical progression, but they're still children's tales.

Burton wanted more structure, though. I don't actually blame him. He created a very good movie, after all. Apart from the visual effects, which were stunning in some cases, he also had an excellent cast to bring his movie to life: newcomer Mia Wasikowska as the grown-up but still childlike Alice; Johnny Depp, as mad as any hatter could be; the lovely Anne Hathaway as the White Queen; Helena Bonham Carter as the threatening but vaguely sympathetic Red Queen; and the inestimable Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat. With this ensemble, Burton was able to present an adventure story that I believe Lewis Carroll might actually enjoy. And it isn't as if any previous incarnation was or could have been entirely faithful to the source material.

The purist in me wanted to hate the movie before it was even completed; but, when in Wonderland, you must be willing to let go of everything you know and embrace what you see. And so, as Alice herself did, I'll list the six impossible things I can believe.

***Warning: May Contain Spoilers***

The first is Alice herself. She's no longer a little girl, but a grown woman who needs to decide what direction to follow in life. The adventures of her childhood, she's now convinced, were simply dreams. Now, when the White Rabbit leads her down to Wonderland, it is no chance encounter. The narrative woven by Tim Burton is one of a chosen protector, a champion whose intervention will free the inhabitants of Wonderland from the dominion of a tyrant. That champion, of course, is Alice.

The tyrant is the Red Queen, who years ago usurped the crown from her sister, the White Queen. This is the second impossible thing. The character of the Red Queen is blended with that of the Queen of Hearts, as she often is. Originally, though, the Queen of Hearts was always the ruler of Wonderland, lording (or ladying?) over the other Suits (Diamonds, Clubs, and Spades). The Red and White Queens lived in Looking-Glass Land, and despite their chess battle, they were actually quite friendly with each other. That was the first thing that bothered me about this new movie when I learned about it. However, if you're going to have an epic battle, which this movie does, then you can either face the Queen of Hearts against the other Suits (which may or may not have been a good idea) or you can do what Tim Burton did. One thing you cannot do is have an 'Alice' movie without the Queen yelling "OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!"

The Jabberwock is number three (and yes, it's Jabberwock, not Jabberwocky). The fearsome dragon of Looking-Glass Land never quite made an appearance in the book, or most of the movies. However, it does make an appearance in this movie, as the Red Queen's resident beastie. It doesn't just inhabit the Tulgey Wood anymore, and it isn't just a foe for young knights who want to prove their mettle. Now, it is the creature that Alice must slay if she is to end the Red Queen's reign of terror.

Some very unlikely characters help Alice in her quest. The Cheshire Cat, originally so enigmatic as to be entirely unhelpful, now is almost eager to put his very life on the line for Alice, the White Queen, and even the Hatter himself. Still an enigma, and still charmingly puzzling, he is another indispensable character, wonderfully played by British character actor Stephen Fry.
If the Cheshire Cat is one example of an unlikely character coming to the rescue, then the Hatter is an even better one. Still mad, and still drinking tea with his friends the March Hare and Dormouse when Alice finds him, the Hatter is perhaps the one resident of Wonderland who has been most affected by the Red Queen's rule. His desire to see the "bloody bighead" fall prompts him to risk his life for Alice time and again, even though he is only one of a few in Wonderland who actually believes she is the intended champion. "I'd know you anywhere," he declares, helping her escape capture at the hands of Stayne, the infamous Knave of Hearts, played by Crispin Glover.

The sixth impossible thing is how much I actually liked this movie. Despite the changes made, the end product is quite a good story. Several characters from the books and previous movies didn't quite make the cut, of course. The Walrus and the Carpenter, the Duchess and the Cook, the Griffin and the Mock Turtle, and the Lion and the Unicorn all were left off the guest list. One character I would have really liked to see would have been the White Knight from Looking-Glass Land, who was Alice's escort for part of her journey and would have been more believable in the role filled by the Mad Hatter. I also would've liked the angle I proposed earlier, with the Red Queen appearing completely as the Queen of Hearts and facing Suits rather than the White Army in the end. It would have made more sense to me.

But this is Wonderland; a world of adventure, not logic; of madness, not sanity; of childlike wonder, not cynical criticism. Some say this movie lacked heart; I say the heart is where this movie's strength truly rested. I came close to walking into the movie with my mind made-up, having already decided what it had done "wrong" and how it "should" be. In that sense, I was a little like Alice, falling into a world she had visited before, facing a host of changes, firmly convinced that she would wake up at any moment to what she "knew" was right. I decided not to be that way; not to lose, in the words of the Hatter, my "muchness".

So, if you want to be like Alice, constantly trying to make sense of the madness in this movie, then that's up to you; but I recommend, instead of falling into the rabbithole, you jump in with both feet.

- Stephen Monteith

(read the original review here on Facebook)


  1. I finally got the opportunity to see this highly anticipated film (definitely one of my highly anticipated films for 2010), and I was completely entranced. I do feel it was a bit fluffier than I had anticipated (the previews made it look like it might deal with weightier issues than it did), but it was not any less enjoyable for it. It was a truly fantastical and enthralling adventure that does commit to at least one significant message- that of choosing your own destiny instead of letting others pressure you into what they perceive to be your destiny. While in Wonderland/Underland, there is still that pressure of everyone relying on her, but she still makes the choice about whether or not to go with it...

    I enjoyed the movie thoroughly, as I did your review of it.

    I do have one very unrelated question that I really want to ask more out of curiosity than anything... How on earth did you find my random, little, no-account blog??

  2. We like some of the same books. *winks, grins*

  3. By the way, I enjoy your movie reviews, as well. I look forward to reading more of them.